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Chungking Mansions – Babel of Hong Kong

Probably the most international place in the world. A building that is a mystery in itself, a different world apart in the most tourist area in Hong Kong. A place that rises shame and horror among locals, but for those who look to change their life for better, it became sort of a promised land. It’s not an exaggeration to call it a real Babel of the Hong Kong. The « heart of darkness» located among some of the most expensive buildings in the world.

History

Chungking Mansions is a 17-floor building situated at 36-44 Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Tsui. The building counts 5 different blocks (A, B, C, D, and E). However, in reality, there are only 3 blocks cause B and C are the same. Each block has two lifts, one deserves even numbers while other the odd numbers. The first two floors are a common area where you can find many different stores and restaurants. The third floor is more like a terrace, it’s on this floor that the towers rise. The building was famous ever since its first day. It was built in 1961. One of the tallest building in the district, made mostly for the residential purposes, attracted people, including some actors. The place offered a tremendous view of the harbour. It is said that Cherie Chung lived there for more than 20 years. It wasn’ always considered as a dodgy. In the 1970s, the building became a hot spot for Western hippies and backpackers after an article in Lonely Planet. Building’s bad construction and fires that struck the place in the 1980s contributed to a deterioration of the building. Its atmosphere is very often compared with Kowloon Walled City. However, Chungking Mansions was never that dramatically out of the law.

Business

It is amazing how much you can actually obtain in only one building. I would definitely describe it as a self-sufficient world in itself. You could stay there for weeks or even months without leaving and still you could get all need. Once you pass the entry and touts, you find yourself in a completely different world. Are you looking for samosas or a phone card? No problem. This place offers such a vast array of goods and services: haircuts, whisky, real estate, electronic plugs, shoes, laundry service. You could even buy sex or drugs,  or book a flight, exchange currency, cut your key. Whether you are looking for a place to sleep, halal barbeque, computer repair, a spy camera fixed in pen or glasses, groceries, medicines, laundry service, legal advice on asylum seeking, or spiritual sustenance, this is the place where you can get it.

chungking mansions

People of Chungking Mansions

During more than 3 years of research, author Gordon Mathews spend countless time in Chungking Mansions. During those years, he met more than 129 different nationalities. It is said that around 4000 people stay over any given night. The place attracts different kinds of people, and the cultural diversity is nothing less than impressive. This world of otherness hidden inside the walls on one of the busiest streets in HK.

  • Traders

Owners and managers, mostly Chinese and South Asian, arrived in the 1970s and 1980s and bought the cheapest property that could be found. By hard work, they managed to send their kids to universities. For most South Asian, it’s a place unlike the rest of HK, where they can work with their fellow countrymen and not suffer discrimination for their non-Chinese ethnicity.

chungking mansions
  • Temporary workers

With no chance for legal work, without visas and work permit, some immigrants work as clerks in stores, touts, waiters, dishwashers in restaurants. Without them, many businesses inside Chungking Mansions could no longer afford to exist.

  • Asylum Seekers
They escape from religious, ethnic, or political prosecution or torture, poverty and hunger in their home countries. Only tiny percent of them will ever get the refugee status that opens the door to a 3rd country. Most of them will spend countless day awaiting their fate in Hong Kong.
  • Domestic helpers

Some domestic workers are employed in Chungking Mansions. However, most of them are drawn by the food and shopping.

  • Sex workers 

 Around 85-90% of the people who work or stay in Chungking Mansions are male. Not surprising, it has been a magnet for sex workers from an array of nationalities. There are sex workers living in the building. During my research, the biggest number that I encountered was around 60-80 in total.

  • Heroin addicts

The idea that still exists in the press, movies or all over Internet is that Chungking Mansions is full of illegal drugs. It might have been true 20-30 years ago. Now, apart from alcohol, it is not that frequent.

  • Tourists

Attracted from all over the world, by low range price of rooms, or an adventure. They book a room and when they arrive, their reaction might be diverse.

Chungking Express
The uniqueness of this place inspired one of my favourite directors, Wong Kar Wai to set his movie in Chungking Mansions. The Chungking Express has not much in common with the reality. The dark place, as Chungking Mansions was portrayed was more of an imagination of the director. 
Chungking express

Book

During almost 4 years of research, Prof. Gordon Matthew spent almost all his free time in Chungking Mansion. First, he discovered the place as a tourist, then he decided to do research about the building, but mostly about people who live and work there. This is one of the very few books in the world that treats a single building as a subject for anthropological studies. 

chungking mansions

Guesthouses and Restaurants

There are around 222 licenced guesthouses with 1687 rooms. We stayed at Maple Leaf Guesthouse and it was fine. Most of the rooms are small cubicles with one of two beds, a TV, an air conditioner, and shower/toilet in one. I wrote a blog post about booking a room in Chungking Mansions, you can read it here. 

As for the restaurants, the place is mostly famous for Indian food. But not only. I ate at Khyber Pass. The owner is called the king of curry. The food is great! I heard that The Delhi Club is worth a visit, but I’ve never tried it.

chungking mansions

Have you ever been to Chungking Mansions? Or, are you planning to visit it on your next travel to Hong Kong?

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